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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #47 (November 22, 2005), page 15.

Insects, fantasies, divorces, phobias, and clones of contemporary Vietnam

The Cemetery of Chua Village and Other Stories

By Doan Le

Translated by Rosemary Nguyen

Curbstone Press, 2005

Paperback, 189 pages, $14.95

By Josephine Bridges

Whether one happens to be alive or dead, it is a very good thing to find oneself surrounded by kindly neighbors." So begins the title story in this eccentric collection of short stories that explore not only the cemeteries, but also the insects, fantasies, divorces, phobias, and clones of contemporary Vietnam. Author Doan Le is also an actor, scriptwriter, director, painter, poet, and novelist. Some people in her position might figure that they had already accomplished enough. Fortunately for her readers, Doan Le apparently didn’t think so.

The author has a little surprise in store for those of us who think that death will at least mean freedom from bureaucracy. In "The Cemetery of Chua Village," ghostly officials act as "the Administrative Director of the Graveyard, the Cadre of Logistics, and the Cadre of Family Registration."

Unsettled by Kafka’s suggestion that you could turn into a cockroach at the drop of a hat? It’s still worth the anxiety to read "Achieving Flyhood," in which the narrator recounts his delight as "I felt my wings, gauzy and glistening myriad colors, quiver gently. It took only a slight spring of my legs to send me aloft, skimming along with the breeze like a glider. What fun!" But alas, "even flies couldn’t escape political congresses."

"The Double Bed of Chua Village" is a requiem not just for a marriage, but for idealism itself. Though it had "triumphed over every hardship throughout two wars, that era of insisting the other take the last place in the bomb shelter and yielding the coolest side of the bed to the other during hot nights in evacuation shelters," the love described here would not last.

Spectacular language relieves the queasy empathy of "Sesame Seed." The old man who comes to the rescue of a prostitute’s child curses her tormentors and their progenitors: "Friggin’ parents of these git-gattin’ guttersnipes whelpin’ up swarms of little piratical punks, barely old enough to crack open your eyes and already making trouble, eh?" Rosemary Nguyen deserves some kind of award for translation so incisive and startling it makes you want to learn the original language and see whether it could possibly be as good.

"The Real Estate of Chua Village" is a cautionary tale graced by vivid expressions and intriguing footnotes. "Who knows what the snakes do in their pit?" muses a character. Another character "might as well have opened up his mouth to have a bit installed." And here’s a footnote explaining an ingenious game: "The child puts the worm down and asks which way is east or west; the wiggling action of the worm is interpreted as the worm nodding its head to point out the correct direction."

"I had always imagined myself to be some sort of undiscovered genius," confides one of the narrators of the hilarious and heartbreaking story "The Venus of Chua Village," who also makes reference to "the stampeding stallion of my artistic nature." By contrast, the other narrator deadpans, "As will happen when events are allowed to follow their natural course, the unexpressed love within me progressed until it reached the stage where it needed to be relieved through poetry."

"The Wooden Cottage" is a deliciously icky phobia tale that also contains some wise observations. "Among all the beings created by God, there are species that dread each other," says the protagonist’s erstwhile husband, who also points out that, "In every person … there is a whole infernal region to which there is no access."

In his introduction, Wayne Karlin, editor of Curbstone Press’s Voices from Vietnam series, writes that the author’s life, "like her country’s, has been marked by a passion for both independence and sacrifice, a fierce romanticism and a slow acceptance of the ways complex reality wears down idealism." Lucky for Vietnam. Lucky for all of us readers.

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